Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dalhousie trek

As I sat in flight sj-109 en-route Bangalore to Delhi, I thought to myself "You are ACTUALLY going to do it!".

And now for the background. For quite some time, I had wanted to trek in the HIMALYAS(yes Himalayas). alas! it was but a dream, the reasons against it were many... time, money and the host of other normal issues that tie up a normal human being from his normally abnormal dreams. My mediocre life reminded me every now and then ..."you ain’t gonna do it dumbo!". Fortunately, the guy up there or somebody down here did some major conspiracy and here I was on the threshold to achieving my dream, the start of a trek, which I hope will be the first pearl in a really big necklace.

The trek was organized by YHAI(Youth Hostel Association of India). This is a pseudo-governmental organization and it operates on a no-profit no-loss basis. The trek was for 5 days and the whole cost for it including, food, stay, bags, guide charges and what-not cost just Rs.1550(Abt 35 U.S Dollars). Its home page is http://www.yhaindia.org/. The only problem is that you may come across some archaic rules like men should not visit women's tents/accommodation, trekkers should march in two lines etc, fortunately they were not very strict on the latter rule or it would have spoiled the fun of the trek, everyone has his own pace and I hate it when somebody asks me to "march" instead of trek.

The date was 30th Dec 2006, Time 11:30 AM. I and my friend(and room mate and college mate and office mate and...) Shyam boarded SJ-109? flight from Bangalore to Delhi. It was after a long gap that I had flown, my last flight(about 18 years ago) was just a jumble of memories covered in the mist of time. I was really thrilled by the acceleration just before take-off, the banking and rolling before touch down and the odd turbulence in between.

Our college mate Nishanth had come to pick us up at Delhi airport. Keeping up with our college tradition of procrastinating anything and everything, we had decided to buy all our winter wear from Delhi instead of getting them from Bangalore. Nishanth claims to be born and brought up in Delhi, but does not know Parliament House from India Gate...:) Fortunately for us, his father had come along.

We dumped our stuff at his place, had a delicious lunch and then went on to fish for stuff at Sarojini Nagar market(of bomb blast fame). The stuff there is cheap and of really poor quality. Almost everything we bought there turned out to be next to useless. I got the worst bargain of all, on being offered a sleeping bag for Rs.750 I smugly bought it for Rs.500 and later came to know that it was worth only Rs.250!!.

In Saronjini market we linked up with the other two people in our party, Sandeep Raja from Hyderabad and his sister Rashmi Parvathy.

Our train to Pathankot was from Old Delhi Rly Stn at 11:30. As we were waiting for our train, another train "Jammu Mail" came in. we were astounded to see a mad rush to get into the compartments. The "Great Indian Ticket less Traveler" seemed to be having a field day. Rashmi excusably had a few butterflies in her stomach. Our train was 2 hours late but even though there was the initial mad rush to get into the train, we were able to "secure" our own seats through some heroic infiltration operations that would give any self respecting Jihadi a complex.

The journey would have been quite eventless had it not been for one crummy TTR. We were traveling on a ticket booked by my friend(correction enemy no:1) Tony K Thayil. This bugger was to come from Pune but could not make it. Anyways here was this uptight ticket checker who wanted to see Tony's face no matter what. He gave us a tough time for close to an hour. It seemed that the only TTR in Indian Railways who did not take a bribe was this guy... fortunately for us another TTR came along and read the printout we had, misinterpreted it and told our villain TTR that we only need to pay a fine of Rs.50 per ticket. Anyways we later found out that this guy did take bribes.. He asked us for a Rs.50 hafta!!! bugger... could have asked us in the beginning itself and saved us a lot of worry, after all we are all co-operating Indians right.

The train was quite late and it was afternoon when we reached Pathankot. From there we took a cycle rickshaw to Pathankot bus stand(Rs.10 fare) which is about a kilometer away. While waiting for the bus in this supremely dirty bus stand, we were befriended by some guys from Delhi who too needed to reach Dalhousie. They suggested sharing a taxi. The fare was Rs.1200 for a Sumo. It was a nice arrangement and we were able to reach Dalhousie by about 6:30 p.m. The 80 kilometers to Dalhousie took us about 3 hours, the only unfortunate incident being that Shyam left his much loved film camera in the cab and lost it for good.

Dalhousie was extremely cold when we reached there. The temperature must have been 5 to 6 degrees with a modest wind to make matters worse for us sun baked South Indians. The first formality was to fill out a form. Our hands were frozen stiff with the cold and to add to it the wind picked up while I was writing, I remember that my last signature was nothing but a curvy-shivery line. Next we had to collect our sleeping bags, two blankets, rucksack and an inner. Even though the place was dark and I could not see the rucksack, by pure luck I got a good one that had all its buckles and zips intact.

The rooms allotted to us had bunk beds and looked a bit gloomy but it wasn’t all that bad. We quickly got friendly with the rest of the batch(about 32 of us + 7 who would join later). The first to befriend us was Mr.Ramesh. He is working with the Railways. The rest included one big family "Vaghelas" from Gujarat, Amit and Umesh Mittal from UP(the first a singer and the second a poet as I would find out later), A big group from Bombay, they were engineering college kids on their final year vacation and the odd Rajasthani and Bihari. It was a motley crowd, but one that was to jell well in the few days that followed. YHAI's pre-eminent goal is "National Integration" and that was what really happened.

The dinner was served right on time and it was VERY tasty. In fact the food served at YHAI is exemplary whether it be the simple chapathees and dal or the slightly more sophisticated custard and soup. We had a proper campfire that day. The indoor cultural activities included singing, poetry and even mono-act. We were the only Malayalees in both the batches together and since nobody would be none the wiser about our songs, we sang one fast number(boat song) that was very well received. The outdoor round saw the the Gujjus taking an upper hand with their "Garba" number and about our attempts to follow them, the less said the better. We were all bone tired by then and hit the sack in no time. The next day(sorry next year) would start
quite early... at 5:30 a.m for us unlucky souls.

Jan 1, 2007 was reserved for acclimatization..... as expected we were late for the morning drill, but since others were even more late we were let off easily. The drill included a 15-minute talk on the virtues of punctuality which was boring but definitely not life threatening. The next was a 1.5 km run from YHAI hostel to Subash chowk, which was clearly an act of attempted suicide on my part. The early morning air was biting cold and each breath I took seemed to burn my lungs out. I was half dead by the time I reached Subash chowk, and behold there stands our Drill Master with that sadistic smile on his face.... he had that "let's-see-you-city-brats-sweat-a-bit" look. To cut a long story short, he choked out whatever life was left in me. But I loved the last part of the drill. We were all wearing woolen stuff to cover our ears from the cold, at the end of the exercise he asked us to remove it, and when we did, I really felt warm! acclimatization, it seemed was happening quite fast.

The vicar at the St.Francis church in Subash chowk was my fathers cousin, I went to meet him, but could not because he was giving the Sunday sermon. I left word with the domestic help that I would come along in the afternoon. After breakfast, we set out on a 10km acclimatization trek(which the instructor later claimed was just 6kms). It was from the hostel in Dalhousie
to Bhagat Singh's Grandpa’s Samadhi. It was not really a trek, just a casual walk and all of us enjoyed it after the exertions in the morning. Umesh(from UP) was selected Group leader, Poornimaji(A veteran trekker) was selected second in command and I was given the un-enviable task of being the "environment leader" which in plain English means "Garbage
collector". We were back by afternoon and went to meet the vicar once more. This time around, I was able to meet him and have a fast chat. I promised to meet him on Friday and left.

The rest of the day was spent very leisurely. We did some last minute purchases that we could not in Delhi, filled our stuff in the rucksacks provided, took bath(after two days) and checked in our luggage into the "extra luggage" tents. By this time the next batch had started filing in, there were a number of mallus in this batch and we did some gossip and chit chat before hitting the sack.

Jan 2 was the official start date of the trek. We would be climbing from Dalhousie to Kalatop(8000 feet) which was also the highest point of the trek. The distance to be covered was about 8-10km. The first part of the route from Dalhousie to Lakhadmandi was partially through road and partially through the forest. The second part to Kalatop was almost completely through the forest. This area was famous for its wild bear but they acted like reclusive celebrities... too shy to show themselves. The rucksacks were only moderately heavy and we did not require much effort to carry them. The route was extremely beautiful and in most places I had to drag Shyam along, His camera-oriented mind was too enchanted by the surroundings. He was happy clicking away and recording all the scenes. Sometimes I hate camera buffs...:(

Just before we reached Lakhadmandi we saw the first patch of snow, for all four of us, snow was a first time experience... with whatever little snow was there, we took a number of snaps... and made it look as if there was snow all around. I tasted it and re-proved the ancient theory that ice is tasteless. To tell the truth I was waiting with baited breath for some "real" snow. These patches were not going to satiate my desire. By this time I had collected quite a pocketful of plastic wastealong the route. But at one point I had to stop collecting because I was carrying too much scrap already.

The next stop was Lakhadmandi. There we found that whole houses had been covered with snow. But a closer inspection revealed that the whole snow was very dirty. Almost all of it had foot prints of previous batches. We spent a lot of time taking pictures and fooling around. One whole ground was filled with snow. I tried a bit of skating but was not very successful.

Even though it was mid afternoon, it was very cold and windy. We had our packed lunch and ordered tea and omelets from the nearby shop. After lunch, I cleaned my plate with some cold water. In no time my hands were freezing and almost immideately it turned bluish, a phenomena that I would see throughout the trek.

From Lakhadmandi onwards to Kalatop, it was almost completely through the forest. Two dogs started accompanying us during this part. It was interesting to see their tactics in the forest. Whenever we reached a bend, one of the dogs would move ahead and sniff the air. Then it would move to one side and see if the coast was clear from bears.

The trekking as such was very easy and we went at a very gentle pace taking in all the sights and sounds. We reached Kalatop by early evening and was a bit disappointed to see that there was not much snow around. While we were having tea and soup, Umesh came up and told me and Shyam to come along. I went along without knowing where it was to. On the way up, we saw a small frozen pond. Somehow I felt elated. Here I was doing what I wanted to do. I started running along the wooded path, with Umesh by my side. We ran for quite some time before noticing that we had left the group far behind and had to trace our way back.

It seems that while we were running ahead a bear ran across our path, just behind us!!. Only Amit was able to see it and we missed the golden opportunity to capture one on camera completely. Our destination was a secluded hill just behind Kalatop. It was very well hidden from view and one can see it only at the last moment. I was thus astounded that not 10 meters from the path we had taken there was this hill covered with snow. It was my near perfect snow-dream come true... virgin snow, untouched by anybody else... I was just too thrilled.... I clambered up and started throwing snow at Shyam and Sandeep. This was followed by one long photo session. Everybody was thrilled, Anish bhai and I took some photos in our undies....:). This was easily the best part of the whole trek for me.

We came back and showed the "censored" photos to Rashmi who was rather crestfallen about being left out. I begged Shyam to come along once more to take a shot with us wearing lungis. But the bugger did not and we missed a golden photo op. I had even planned to name it "mallus on snow" ah... some dreams are hard to fulfill I guess. Next we went to inspect our lodging. It was on the first floor of a rock building and it was very cold in there. YHAI provides sleeping bags and blankets at each camp, hence you don’t need to carry them around from one camp to another. The females had much better accommodation, with carpeted floors etc. Anyways after the usual round of joking and gossiping we hit the sack. Because of the cold I got up one or two times during the night but overall this rugged experience was very much within our limitations.

After Kalatop, the climate became warmer but the trek harder since there were some steep slopes. The next day(Jan 03 2007) morning, the camp leader informed us about that day's itinerary. The trek was to a place called Khajjiar an exceptionally beautiful place. It was a naturally dying lake covering a huge area bounded by deodar trees on all sides, a scene right out of the movies.... in fact a lot of Hindi films are shot at this place. The path through the forest was exceptionally beautiful and we found patches of snow here and there, on one of these patches I took a snap dressed in my mundu. It was a cool snap but not really up to my expectations as I wanted to take one pic with lots of snow in the background.

On the way we met some local children selling flowers and pine acorns. Most of it cost about Rs.5 per bundle. Umesh who owns an art gallery back home bought the whole franchise and the kids were very happy. The trek route until lunch point was moderately tough, but with all the amusement provided by Rashmi(her particular dialect of Malayalam is very funny to hear), the various photo ops and the regular complaining from Sandeep about his shoe bite we reached there just behind the main group.

As Shyam and I crossed over the last curve we saw a brook far below. Our lunch site was on the opposite side of the brook. For the first time since I started the trek, I had actually sweated a bit, it was mid-afternoon and the multiple sweaters were proving to be quite warm. I had this brilliant(lunatic say some) idea to take a dip in the brook. Shyam was all for it and even Sandy agreed to join in. After we reached lunch point, we quickly removed our clothes and I took the first jump, I knew that the water would be cold, but I really was not expecting it to be sooo cold. It literally gave me an electric shock!!! I just couldn’t stay still so I swam to the other end and back in a jiffy and climbed back in as fast as possible. The experience was terrific!. After I toweled and put on my clothes my body felt quite warm but my hands were in for some trouble, they turned bluish, swelled and gave me a tough time for the next half an hour. Shyam followed immediately with much the same results and Sandy backed out seeing our antics of getting out of the water...:)

After lunch we embarked on the hardest part of the trek, the climb to Khajjiar from lunch point onwards was quite rugged. But even this section did not prove to be too hard, overall I was a bit dissatisfied with the toughness of the trek, we were never in that "cant-get-breath" situ at any point. My trek in Brahmagiri(Karnataka-Kerala border) was much tougher compared to this one. Rashmi though was having a tough time since she was not so accustomed to trekking. I and Shyam are very chivalrous by nature so we made things worse by pushing her on through "short-cuts" which were actually tougher than the real route...:). For reasons quite beyond my understanding she vehemently refused to be part of our next trek....:)

By the time we reached Khajjiar we were all pretty tired, the whole group just lazed on the grass, listening to some music and seeing the other tourists take horse rides. The accommodation in Khajjiar was very good compared to the one in kalatop and we were able
to get good carpeted rooms and attached toilets with hot water for a change. The food as usual was very good. Later in the evening we took a stroll to the Khajjiar lake, A small bridge-cum-house is built right in the middle of this shallow lake. It is an exceptionally peaceful place. We were a small group, about 7-8 of us sitting in the middle of the lake and nobody(except Rameshji) felt like uttering a word. So we decided to keep quiet for two minutes, I can't really explain it but the feeling was so beautiful, silence is sometimes so important. I did not think, I did not talk, I just sat there and felt the peace. But then nice things do not last too long, Rameshji had to blurt out after sometime....:) he was suffocated by the silence I guess!

After returning from the lake we all just stood in front of the hostel and gossiped, I got to know more about the college kids from Bombay, I felt a bit envious that they were able to do all this trekking in their college days itself.

But I guess I will remember this day as the sun-set-moon-rise day.... just as we were taking pictures of an exceptionally beautiful sunset in the mountains, the moon started rising. It was a full moon and it rose from behind the mountains where the sun had set.... it's quite beyond my language skills to express the beauty of the scene. It was just pure magic.

After dinner we had another round of chit-chat and then hit the sack. Next morning we were a bit late to get out of bed, things were a bit laid back since we were nearing the end of the trek. Jan 04 2007 was the last day of actual trekking, the trek was fully downhill about 12 km, to the town of Chamba. It was quite easy and not so beautiful as the previous days, Shyam and I took quite a number of short cuts just to get the feel of having done something. Most notably we pushed Sandeep and Rashmi to do the same thing. Poor folks, I guess they will never make the mistake of coming with us again...:)

Halfway through the trek, I befriended Piyush(from the Gujarati group) I had not interacted with him much(which was a mistake). All the Gujaratis were chewing "thumbak" which gives you a minor kick and gets you going. He offered me some which I took, I did not feel too much effect, but from then on the climb down seemed to be even more easier. At our lunch point we saw a village school nearby. Himachal Pradesh is well known for its literacy, but I really admired the school settings. The kids sitting in open air under a tree shade, the teacher on a chair in front of them and some classes did not even have a black board!. The scene seemed to be straight out of the epic "Mahabharata".

The camp leader greeted us at Chamba and asked me for his "gift" which was the garbage that I was supposed to collect en-route, unfortunately I had forgotten about it on the third day. Fortunately for me this was no army and I was not court-martial led for "dereliction of duty". That evening we went to visit Chamba town and museum, the museum was small but quite interesting it gave us a good insight into the history of Chamba.

That night we had a long drawn out campfire in our room, we got away with another mallu number but Rashmi had to dance some Kathak steps to satisfy the audience. The camp leader was a good singer and he joined us in the fun. I enjoyed the whole affair very much everyone was relaxed at having finished the trek successfully without any mishaps and joined in with relish.

The next day, Jan 05 2007 we caught the bus back to Dalhousie, it took us about 2 and a half hours. We were not very sure about what to do with the rest of the time we had on hand, our return train was Saturday night. Ideas flew thick and fast, we decided on Patni Top in Jammu and Kashmir, I was very thrilled about it. But once we reached Dalhousie, I went to meet the vicar again, he was at one time stationed in Jammu and he advised us not to go to Jammu since the traveling itself would take all the time, so we revised our plans and went to Dharamshala.

We got a contact for a hotel there which was just opposite the local Gurudwara. The lodge did not look too good from outside and we had some misgiving there but once we met the owner we decided to take the rooms. It was run a very fine Sikh gentleman in his seventies, He thoroughly impressed me with his fine manners and pleasant conversation. I had a chat with him about Sikh history and other stuff for quite some time. While traveling you meet many people, almost all of them you forget the very next day, but some people live on in memory and I am sure that this Sikh gentleman will be one of them as far as I am concerned.

The next day we went in a taxi arranged by him to see the sights around Dharamshala(Rs.450). The first was the Buddhist temple, where we spent about two hours. Later we went to see a local waterfall and some temples, it was a rather un-eventful visit, We caught the bus at 4 P.M and reached Pathankot by about 8 p.m our return train to Delhi was at 10:15, so we had
dinner, Shyam went to check with the travels from where we hired the taxi to see if they had got his film camera, unfortunately they informed him that they too had not seen it. The journey back was un-eventful, this time we had tickets proper so no TTR bothered us.

We reached Delhi on Jan 08 2007 in the morning. We took a taxi to Shyam's place in Noida, had our breakfast(ate like I never saw food before), refreshed ourselves and then went out to do some shopping. I had told my mother that I would cut my hair on the way back from the Himalayas, Shyam was totally against it, so were the others except rashmi who was supportive. Anyways I was too exasperated with its maintenance and add to it the emotional blackmail from ma mother, I had firmly decided to cut it off and so I did. I "lost" ten years after the cut according to Shyam, the new style was received with mixed reactions from friends and family. With most of them saying that the old one was better....:(

Later that night we went for some shopping at Delhi Haat, the stuff displayed there was quite good, most of the handicrafts were of real good quality but I was in no mood to buy, I just wanted to sleep! after having a look around most places, we left. Our flights back to Bangalore were scheduled in the morning, I was by this time feeling quite depressed thinking of going back to office and daily routine. Early morning next day (Jan 08) we bid farewell to Shyam’s parents and took the flight back...."back to the grind"....:)


Blogger Net said...

Poonam and I know each other through Mathew. Mathew and Poonam are/were colleagues. She is one of the members of our group who have made numerous trip in and around Mumbai and even to Dalhousie.

Hotels in Dalhousie

11:49 AM  

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